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Pakistan Reinstates Chief Justice, Defusing Political Standoff

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Pakistan's deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, center, is greeted by lawyers after the government announced to reinstate him at his residence in Islamabad, Pakistan, 16 Mar 2009
Pakistan's deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, center, is greeted by lawyers after the government announced to reinstate him at his residence in Islamabad, Pakistan, 16 Mar 2009

Pakistan's prime minister has acceded to demands to reinstate the country's former supreme court chief justice, who was fired by then-President Pervez Musharraf in 2007. The announcement in Islamabad appears to have defused the standoff between the government and its opponents.

The prime minister announced the reinstatement in a broadcast on state television just before dawn Monday - hours before thousands of protesters were preparing to converge on the capital.

Yousuf Raza Gilani says he and the president have decided to restore Ifitkhar Muhammed Chaudhry and other former justices to the court. He says Chaudhry will be sworn in March 21, when the current chief justice retires.

The prime minister also says the government will review a recent supreme court decision that effectively barred former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother from holding elected office. He also says all demonstrators arrested in recent days will be freed.

Protesters Celebrate

Thousands of protesters, slowly making their way from Lahore to Islamabad for Monday's rally, were jubilant at the news. Opposition leader Mr. Sharif says the long march has been successful and the crowd should celebrate.

He thanked his supporters, saying this is what they have been working towards. He says, if the government had restored the chief justice earlier, the country would not have been in this situation.

Mr. Sharif and senior lawyers called off Monday's protest rally in the capital. Demonstrators had vowed to defy the government and protest outside parliament, prompting worries of clashes that could destabilize the government.

At the Islamabad home of Chaudhry, dozens of lawyers and other supporters celebrated the news of his reinstatement.

Musharraf Clashed With Chief Justice

Chaudhry was fired by then-President Musharraf in November 2007, after he tried to challenge Mr. Musharraf's suspension of the constitution and imposition of a state of emergency. Since then, Chaudhry's reinstatement has been championed by lawyers and human rights activists, who insist it is the only way to restore the independence of the judiciary.

Pakistani lawyers stamp on a poster of President Pervez Musharraf with their shoes during an anti-Musharraf protest rally in Multan, 25 March 2008
Pakistani lawyers stamp on a poster of President Pervez Musharraf with their shoes during an anti-Musharraf protest rally in Multan, 25 March 2008

Political opponents of President Musharraf, including Asif Zardari and his Pakistan People's Party, had promised to reinstate the former chief justice after winning elections in February, 2008. But President Zardari failed to honor the pledge. The return of the chief justice could jeopardize court rulings that granted him immunity from prosecution in pending corruption cases.

At Chaudhry's Islamabad home, where supporters had begun gathering, hours earlier, in anticipation of the government's decision, people cheered his return to the court.

Athar Minallah, the spokesman for the chief justice, was more cautious, saying lawyers still have some questions about the details of his reinstatement.

He says, to win the confidence of the people, President Zardari must prove that he has sincerely restored these judges and the that restoration respects the supremacy of the constitution.

Minallah says lawyers would be watching closely to see if the government tries to curtail the powers of the chief justice.

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